Readers may recognize that this title riffs off of Jean-Paul Sartre’s influential essay “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Though the German existentialists might have rejected this association, Sartre’s desire to locate Existentialism within the humanist tradition shows the powerful impact that humanism has in the imagination of the West. It’s influence is so profound that for Sartre, humanism is the genus and existentialism is a species. Can the same be said about Mormonism? Is Mormonism simply an expression of the backbone of the Modern West’s philosophical framework?
What got me thinking about this topic was a recent performance I attended by Julia Sweeney called “Letting Go of God.” Julia was the SNL comedian that is famous for playing the lovable androgynous “Pat.” In it she recounts her failed search for religion and belief in God. (As a side note, there was a long discussion of her encounter with the Mormon missionaries and her reactions to the first discussion. But I’ll save this for another post). Now she considers herself a secular humanist and has even been given awards by humanist societies.
Humanism really traces its roots to modernity and the turn to ethics of and concerning the individual subject. The concept of rights, democracy, the intrinsic worth of humans, and universal rationality are all the products of humanism. Humanism is the philosophical framework behind feminism, civil rights, the end of torture, invasion into Iraq, public schools, and universal health care. There is no one humanist ideology since humanists claim all sorts of competing positions within the same issue. For example, pro-choice and pro-life movements might be suprised to learn that they are both rooted in humanism, though they are configuring its constitutive elements differently.
Mormonism seems to sit squarely in the humanist tradition with its emphasis on the sacred character of each individual, its positive view of the nature of human beings (the rejection of Original Sin was a halmark of modern humanism), and its focus on human progress. Indeed, the Mormon doctrine of God can in some ways be seen as the theological zenith of humanism.
Secular humanists (and religious one’s as well) locate the basis of ethical behavior outside of revealed religion. “Thou shalt not kill” doesn’t really take a revelation to figure out. In fact, one of the most important developments in modernity (esp. Hume and Kant) was to separate ethics from theology. Even most Mormons accept that being a good person can be determined without reference to theological criteria.
All of this is a round about way of asking what Mormonism’s value add is to humanism, even in its secular form. Do we learn anything more about ethics that cannot already be argued from within the humanist tradition? Or, is Mormonism just another expression of the ways in which humanism has already framed our view of the individual subject? If not, then why be a Mormon and not just a humanist?